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Here’s a story of the Western version of pizza-gate — a fake news “child sex-trafficking ring” report from Tucson promoted by right-wing loonies.
Conspiracy theories inspire vigilante justice in Tucson
How one man’s imagined discovery of a sex-trafficking camp in the Sonoran Desert gained life online — and in the real world.
On May 31, a strange story aired on the nightly news in Tucson, Arizona. KOLD News 13 reporter Kevin Adger told viewers that a local veterans’ rights activist named Lewis Arthur had made a horrific discovery in the bushes beside a frontage road: a bunker used as a stopover by child sex traffickers. The reporter pointed out children’s clothes, an old toilet seat and a septic tank where Arthur claimed kids had been held against their will.
Arthur had stumbled across the camp while canvassing the area for homeless vets. He posted an outraged rant on Facebook and started getting comments — a lot of them. When he posted videos arguing that there were probably bodies buried at the camp and that it was part of a network of Arizona sex trafficking sites, he topped 680,000 views in days.
There was just one problem with Arthur’s story: It wasn’t true. Tucson police and sheriff’s deputies both investigated the site and found nothing more than a former homeless camp — no evidence of sex trafficking. Arthur then claimed he and two friends had found proof: a child’s skull. Officers sent the skull to the Pima County medical examiner, who concluded that it had belonged to an adult and been found miles away from the homeless camp.
The Arizona Daily Star and other local news outlets published stories debunking the claims. In a pre-internet world, the whole thing might have ended there, without any more newspaper ink or the involvement of the FBI. But in 2018 — at a time when social media, a conspiracy-minded president, and the erosion of trust in public institutions are providing fertile ground for wild-eyed theories — the story kept gaining life.
From as far away as Australia, believers travelled to the Tucson desert to deliver vigilante justice to the sex traffickers. Their stories became more elaborate: The skull became a partial corpse. One person told me it was so fresh when it was found, they saw it “dripping.” The camp became evidence of a massive pedophile ring implicating Cemex, the Mexican cement company that owns the property. Some of Arthur’s followers found more bones and suggested they came from people who had died terrible deaths. But the medical examiner analyzed them, too, and concluded they were animal remains. At least one was from a deer.
I FIRST HEARD of Lewis Arthur in early June, when JJ MacNab, an expert on anti-government movements, tweeted about his “one-sided standoff.” It caught my eye because Arthur had connections to the Bundy family, the Nevada ranchers at the center of two recent armed confrontations with federal land managers. Arthur had traveled to Bunkerville, Nevada, in 2014 to help prevent the Bureau of Land Management from removing the cows Cliven Bundy had illegally grazed for decades. Two years later, he showed up at the armed occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge led by Cliven’s sons.
But even in those far-right circles, Arthur is considered a fringe character, known as “Screwy Louie.” At Bundy Ranch, he reportedly called police to the protest site, and in Oregon, he tried to “help” an acquaintance, militiaman Ryan Payne, and “women and children” by rescuing them from the refuge, the occupation of which Arthur believed was misguided. Bundyites kicked him out of both events.
Arthur, 39, is 6 foot 2, with red hair, freckles and hazel eyes. His full name is Michael Lewis Arthur Meyer, but “Michael Meyer,” he says, is an entirely different man. The personal story he tells is one of victimhood and redemption. On a walk through the desert this summer, he told me that he’s originally from Ohio, was sexually abused as a kid, and later fell into selling drugs. He now lives in Tucson, where his wife works in the pharmaceutical industry, supporting him and his daughter.
Arthur, who is not a veteran, started the group Veterans on Patrol (VOP) in 2015, to provide temporary shelter to homeless vets in Mesa, Prescott, Nogales and Tucson. Helping vets was a worthy cause, but Arthur seemed to be searching for something more. In recent years, he also started climbing towers wielding upside-down American flags to draw attention to homelessness and suicide among veterans. In 2015, he perched atop an 80-foot-tall light pole in Surprise, Arizona, for four hours. This July, he occupied a tower on the Cemex property for nine days, demanding officials investigate child sex trafficking.
After he announced his discovery of the sex camp, Arthur started gaining the attention he seemed to seek. Within 24 hours, he gained 55,000 Facebook followers, which grew to 77,000 in July. “For him this is a religious mission,” tied to his Christian faith, says MacNab, who has followed Arthur’s activities for several years. “He has a huge heart. But he’s got this other side that is desperate for drama and attention.”
And what about his followers, I wondered? What compelled them to sprint to the scorching desert to join one man’s fantastical crusade? And what does it mean for communities when the unreality of the internet so easily crosses the threshold into real life?
IT WAS 105 DEGREES on the June afternoon I arrived at Camp Pulaski, the base Arthur set up near Picture Rocks, a Tucson suburb, from which to launch his new mission: intercepting sex traffickers coming from the southern border. In the early mornings and after nightfall, the camp’s residents patrol on foot and in ATVs, trucks and jeeps. “If they want to come into our backyard,” Arthur declared via livestream, “we’ll give them a fight.”
Camp Pulaski consisted of a couple large tarp structures and five or six camping tents clustered almost a mile off a county road. A large map of the Sonoran Desert hung in one tent, with push pins marking the locations of additional camps Arthur said he’d established. That afternoon, I did what everyone else was doing: I sat in a folding chair, drank water and asked people why they’d come.
I sat next to a 70-year-old woman from Colorado Springs, who wore peach lipstick and cowboy boots. In between bites of Starkist tuna, she told me she’d heard about the mission on Facebook and felt a personal connection. “I had been in an abused situation with my mother,” she said. “It makes me want to be able to do something to those people.” Several people I talked to were driven by curiosity; they saw strange stories on Facebook and wanted to find the truth. There were longtime friends of Arthur’s who had found a home at his shelters, or helped with Veterans on Patrol. And there were also hardcore conspiracy theorists, who believed the “sex camp” was part of a global pedophile ring run by rich elites.
Pedophile rings allegedly involving high-profile Democrats are central to some of the conspiracy theories that have metastasized for years in right-wing online forums and social media. And the Tucson gathering wasn’t the first time this online chatter had real-world consequences. The infamous 2016 incident known as “Pizzagate” — where a fantasy about Hillary Clinton sexually abusing minors in a Washington, D.C., pizza joint prompted a man to barge into the restaurant and fire an AR-15 while looking for victims — was the fruit of the same poisonous tree.
And new branches keep growing. Some of Lewis’ acolytes were also followers of “Q,” or QAnon, a shadowy figure purporting to be a high-level government agent and leaker. The information Q posts online supports anti-Hillary Clinton, pro-Donald Trump conspiracies that often involve sex crimes against children. And while sex trafficking is a real problem in the U.S., there is as little evidence for the salacious particulars popular in these fringe forums as there was at the camp Arthur “discovered.”
After a couple days at Camp Pulaski, it started to seem as if its denizens were living in a dark version of the smartphone game Pokémon Go, in which fictional creatures populate the physical landscape players move through. A group of patrollers saw a business sign showing a human eye and believed it was the mark of a secret society. When they saw white crosses painted or laid down in the desert sand — signs experts say are used in aerial mapping — they interpreted them as the insignia of sex traffickers. One day, a man named Frank gave me a ride from Camp Pulaski to the main road, and talked about how many kids go missing every year where he’s from in West Virginia. (Most people I met at Camp Pulaski spoke on the condition that their last names or full names not be revealed.) Then he told me that Anthony Bourdain, the famous chef who had committed suicide days earlier in France, had actually been murdered. Authorities, he claimed, had covered it up. As I hopped out of his jeep, I wondered what Bourdain and missing kids in West Virginia had to do with sex traffickers in the Sonoran Desert. “If you’re really looking for the truth, I will stay here another day and will pull up as much information as I can for you,” Frank said.
Believers see these imaginary global webs of malfeasance as huge and intangible problems, like climate change. For Frank and others I met at Camp Pulaksi, Arthur’s call to arms offered a direct answer, one five-hour desert patrol at a time.
In some ways, their activities are just a twist on the long-standing vigilante tradition in which white men take up arms to try to keep migrants from crossing the border. Such contemporary volunteer “militias,” including the Minutemen, Arizona Border Recon, the Arizona State Militia, and their precursors, have operated in the Borderlands since the 1990s. Most people I spoke with at Camp Pulaski had never been part of a militia. But a similar, racially charged hostility toward immigrants permeates Arthur’s rhetoric, which is unmistakably Trumpian. The then-candidate’s 2015 statement that Mexicans are “rapists” and drug dealers echoes through VOP livestreams. Arthur says he’s not only helping ranchers keep “illegals” off their land, he’s also trying to save migrant “women and children” from Mexican coyotes.
And like many things Trumpian, Arthur’s crusade has unleashed a novel sort of chaos.
IT WAS SWELTERING when I pulled into a suburb a few miles from Camp Pulaski. The houses sat in neat rows with sandy driveways and minimal landscaping, and it was a relief to walk into Rachel Krause’s cool home. An American flag was folded in a triangle displayed in the kitchen, and her laptop slept quietly on a desk near the front door.
Krause is among a couple dozen individuals in Tucson and across the country who have taken it upon themselves to monitor Arthur, debunk his claims, and provide facts and commentary online. They are vigilantes in their own right, seeing themselves not as enforcers of the law but of the truth.
Krause, 42, has brown hair and a tattoo of a snowflake on her shoulder. She is a former accountant whose husband works in the military and in local law enforcement. “I’m a liberal,” she told me. “He’s the Boy Scout, the Republican.” In early June, she and another woman started a Facebook page called “Citizens Against VOP.” Krause couldn’t stand seeing people get duped into sending gift cards and supplies to support Arthur, and she was angry that her community was the staging ground.
Within days, 300 people had liked the group. “We had no idea that the responses would be just so vast,” Krause said. She installed the Facebook page manager app on her smartphone to help her keep up, but deleted it a couple days later because she got so many notifications from commenters. She’d skipped lunch the day I visited because things were so busy online.
“It’s better than television,” Tucson resident Sherry Peterman told me later by phone. “It’s a real-life drama.” When Peterman first heard about the sex camp on local TV, she believed Arthur’s claims. But then she started following Krause’s Facebook page and researching Veterans on Patrol, and she decided Arthur was misleading people. By then, she couldn’t look away.
Despite the entertainment and sense of purpose that Peterman and Krause have found in debunking Arthur’s claims, it’s also been an unnerving experience. Krause has received threatening messages from his supporters, and online trolls have warned her to watch her back and posted screenshots of her house. Peterman, a senior citizen who lives alone, says she locked herself in her house after watching a particularly angry livestream. Arthur spoke of unleashing “demons” on his opposition, something that Peterman took as a threat of physical violence. “It was enough to say, ‘Hey, lock your windows, watch your car, and goodness, don’t answer your door until you know who’s on the other side,’ ” Peterman told me. She notified the police, but they said the threat was too vague to act on.
The police did, however, take action after Arthur and several associates trespassed on private property. In June, Arthur livestreamed them walking through a ranch house, pointing out evidence of alleged criminal activity: A chair facing the window was a trafficker’s lookout, a child’s bedroom proof of abuse.
Kyle Cuttrell, who runs cattle from the property in question, told me the claims were absurd. “It’s just an unoccupied ranch house,” another rancher who manages the property, told Arthur in a July phone call that was recorded and posted online, apparently without the rancher’s permission. “I don’t want to be slandered and called a goddamn pedophile,” he said. The harder the rancher tried to reason with Arthur, the clearer it became that nothing would change his mind about what he thought he saw. On July 8, Tucson authorities arrested Arthur on a charge of trespassing, and he spent one night in jail. (He was arrested again on July 22 for the Cemex tower occupation and an unrelated assault charge.)
Overall, though, it’s been challenging for local law enforcement to figure out how to respond to Veterans on Patrol. Sgt. Tiffany Hogate of the Pima County Sheriff’s Department told me in July that she was inundated with reports of weird happenings, some of which turned out to be too vague or unsubstantiated to address. The complaints ranged from online threats to suspicious foot traffic on private land. She was tasked with monitoring VOP’s activities and had put one detective on it full-time; another deputy was helping out part-time.
Hogate and the detective spent hours some days monitoring Arthur’s livestreams, where local officials were also coming under attack. Arthur publicly called out Tucson’s mayor and sheriff on Facebook, arguing that because they don’t support his cause, they must be complicit in sex trafficking. In mid-July, he publicly thanked the secretive hacker group Anonymous for posting names, addresses and passwords for certain law enforcement employees online. That month, one of Arthur’s supporters threatened on Facebook to slit the mayor’s throat, line up local police officials “in front of a firing squad,” and put them in a wood chipper. According to local sources, the FBI began monitoring Arthur and VOP this summer. As of July, Hogate was hoping to create a joint task force of local agencies to more efficiently monitor VOP. She had submitted a request for the FBI to conduct a threat assessment, but hadn’t heard back yet.
To add to the chaos, around the time of the break in, a contingent of the Oath Keepers, a national militia group, launched “Operation Child Shield,” and came to town to look for more sex trafficking sites. “They’re looking for a cause,” MacNab explained. They offered advice to Arthur’s followers on handling crime scene evidence, then also met with Cuttrell and other ranchers, suggesting the militia could protect their properties. “I was real nervous about meeting with those guys,” Cuttrell told me. “But they’re legit.”
AS OF EARLY SEPTEMBER, Veterans on Patrol continues to work from Camp Pulaski; Arthur says they’ll stay for three years. They have now traveled as far south as the Mexican border, placing American flags atop hills believed to be lookouts used by migrants and cartels. The fringe group that gathered in the desert never seemed to grow to more than a few dozen, and most in Tucson never knew of its existence.
Still, it’s worth paying attention to what’s happening here. It appears to be an extreme expression of broader trends, such as the eroding trust in traditional institutions like government, science and journalism, and the increasing reliance — by people across the political spectrum — on alternative news sources and social media for information. The Rand Corporation, a global policy think tank, called this phenomenon, along with an increasing disagreement about basic facts, “truth decay” in a report earlier this year.
“I think individuals are finding only a very few people they trust, distilling into smaller communities,” said Rutgers University media studies associate professor Jack Bratich, describing a pattern that seemed evident in how Arthur’s followers and his opposition organized into factions online. “I don’t think it’s just filter bubbles, where you get only the news you want, but clusters of information communities.”
This social splintering, along with “truth decay,” increasingly pervades American life. Donald Trump rode baseless claims that President Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. all the way to the White House. In his first year and a half in office, the Washington Post calculated that Trump made 4,229 false or misleading claims, with some taking root in the public imagination: A Washington Post-ABC News poll last year found 48 percent of Americans believed in a “deep state,” or a conspiracy of “military, intelligence and government officials who try to secretly manipulate government policy.” This normalization of conspiratorial thinking raises questions about whether ideas incubating in fringe circles like Arthur’s may find pathways to wider audiences.
“We’re in a perfect storm right now because we have a conspiracy theory president,” says University of Miami political scientist Joseph Uscinski, adding that, “the media has to constantly cover his conspiracy rhetoric and the actions people are taking based on his rhetoric.”
Here in the desert, it seemed fortuitous that the consequences had not yet included violence. Boise State University associate professor Seth Ashley, who recently co-authored research on news literacy and conspiracy theories, pointed out that Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine black parishioners in a South Carolina church in 2015, similarly projected misinformation he found online onto the world around him. “(Roof) Googled black-on-white crime and got all these links about the prevalence of black people killing white people,” Ashley said. “It’s totally false.” And yet it shaped his worldview and his actions, and nine people died. “The content and the behavior is all connected,” Ashley explained. “It’s great that we can all voice our opinions and do our own research and find our own information. But that also makes it harder than ever to sort truth from fiction.”
ONE SUMMER EVENING at dusk, I visited the notorious Cemex lot, finding it empty except for an unmarked cruiser. Long shadows yawned over the dirt and asphalt. The former homeless camp was tucked into a brambly slope, invisible from the road. Nearby, a casino’s billboard promised fast cash: “Your shot at $1,000,000!” A dilapidated blue children’s pool full of gravel and old chunks of cement sat next to the locked fence. It was hard to imagine this place had provoked such distracting drama.
“They’re out there chasing ghosts,” Scott Cutright, a veteran who spent a few weeks in one of Arthur’s shelters this year, had told me. “That’s the term you use in the military. You hear things go bump in the night, you think it’s the enemy, but in reality it’s your imagination because you’re scared or you’re amped up. You think there’s something out there, you pour resources into (it). But in reality, it’s ghosts.”
Tay Wiles is a High Country News correspondent.